Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Volunteerism Strengthens Communities, Improves Lives

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, March 5 / 18

Zack Gross

In a world – and in our own country – where the news is almost always negative and people are bogged down by a long winter, it is nice to hear about the selfless side of our nature.  I’ve sat on a jury to choose recipients of volunteerism awards for fifteen years now and always come out of the experience feeling better about people and about communities.

Today’s Canada actually has over 13 million people who volunteer in a formal way on a regular basis.  That is more than one-third of our population, and the number of volunteers in Canada is growing faster than the population growth rate!  The week of April 15th to 21st, next month, is National Volunteer Week in Canada and generally around the Western World. 

Of course, for some people, volunteering is a very individual and informal act that almost goes unnoticed.  I live on a windblown road in a rural area.  My next door neighbor shows up on his little tractor every time it snows to clear our driveway, never saying “Hey, I’m here!” or asking anything in return.  That is one very helpful form of volunteerism!

For others, they volunteer in more visible ways and as part of groups.  The largest part of this volunteer presence is members of faith-based organizations that promote “good works.
These volunteers may sing in choirs that visit seniors’ homes and hospitals.  They may sit on boards and committees of food banks, health-focused non-profits, or community centres.  Or they may work “on the frontlines, delivering snacks in cancer clinics, putting up purple martin or bluebird houses, or coaching hockey or baseball.

There are actually more young people who do volunteer work in our communities than older people, but they do fewer hours per person.  Older members of our communities, for instance those nearing or having achieved retirement, may volunteer less in number but put in more hours!  Research shows that people with more education and higher incomes tend to volunteer more often.  

Of course, statistics don’t always tell the whole story.  In reading nominations for volunteer awards, I have found that often people facing real challenges in their lives are also active volunteers.  The person who takes your donation at a food bank or helps you find your way in a hospital may also be a client or patient of those institutions.  Volunteers often say that their volunteer experience helped them to break out of depression or addiction and paved their way to having the skills and discipline to find paid employment, while remaining an active volunteer.

What would the world be like without volunteers?  We likely take unpaid work for granted.  For instance, the person who helps you at the local library may be a volunteer.  The golden-jacketed person who gives you directions and advice at the Winnipeg airport is a volunteer.  The person who greets you at your museum, takes your coat, and shows you around may be a volunteer – and that person will stay around to dust the display after you leave!
The voluntary sector has its own set of challenges.  Finding satisfying work for those who wish to serve is one thing.  Supervising volunteers to make sure they do a good job is another.  Training volunteers in today’s computer technology can be a challenge as, in particular, many seniors are not comfortable with complex IT programs.  As our society welcomes more and more newcomers, language can be an issue for both sides.  In Manitoba, an effort has been made to treat the non-profit world as any professional sector, and make programs available to train volunteers and prepare organizations to use them effectively.

For the volunteer, especially a young one, serving in an unpaid capacity can earn a student course credits and enhance their resumé.  Of course, there can be great satisfaction in being part of your community, meeting like-minded people and having fun while doing something useful.  Most volunteers in Canada are involved in organizing events or fundraising.  But some do jobs that might seem a great challenge to many of us, for example offering end of life care in a hospice or counseling people facing difficult personal issues.

As someone who has worked in the non-profit world my entire career, I’ve interacted with volunteers on a daily basis.  Much of our work – from mail-outs to fundraisers to decision-making
could not have been done without that support.

When Volunteer Appreciation Week rolls around next month, it is important for organizations to reward their volunteers in some way.  Many communities and associations hold events to recognize their volunteers and invite the media to showcase all that is contributed freely in the community.  This is the good news story that needs to be told to give everyone hope that the negatives in our world are not the only story.

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of Brandon’s The Marquis Project and now co-ordinates outreach for Fair Trade Manitoba.

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